The caves are filled with treasures of dialogue
I once knew an emotionally unstable young lady that was very much into anime conventions, the dress-up that comes with them, and fan-fiction. She was the kind of person that wrote volumes worth of fan-fiction for any number of Final Fantasys, animes I’ve never heard of, and at least two universes of her own creation. While did manage to secure all of three fans, she had that issue where her love of writing and the creating characters in her mind overwhelmed the need to edit. The end result were streams of words and text explaining parts of the setting that meant nothing and characters that exist for no reason other than because she wanted to draw their gimmick-swords for all to see.
I feel that this best describes Cave Story; the product of someone who was more interested in unleashing the product of their childhood imagination over creating a game for other people to enjoy. Originally designed as a free PC game by a single, lonely man in with a love of anime and Actionscript, Cave Story now enters the WiiWare market with intent to make real money. And I’m sure that it will make a pretty penny…among its handful of fans.
Cave Story pits you in the role of some dude who goes in caves and stops a bad man. That is all. Should be simple and succinct. Certainly as interesting as a typical sidescrollers plot. So why does this game have so much damned dialogue?
There’s this giant backstory about a race of big-eyed rabbits, an evil doctor, the vulnerabilities of these rabbits, the doctor’s plan to use exploit rabbits, and the pointless roles of many ancillary characters. This story has so many words, all of which are often explaining the same plot points I’ve figured out, and all doing little to explain the backstory of the game’s numerous one-dimensional archetype rabbit characters, let alone their purpose. There’s the wise old leader, the jaded samurai that hates your outsider ass, at least two bumbling scientists, a female scientist too young to boast any kind of post-secondary degree, the perky femme fatale, the evil villain and his Team Rocket henchmen. So many characters, spewing so much dialogue explaining the world with a straight face and assuming the uninitiated fan cares. Cave Story is not as smart as it thinks it is.
And you can’t skip the dialogue, either, which is so damned annoying when you’ve got to deal with a shoveled snowpile of text right before a difficult boss fight. My constant feeling throughout Cave Story was that you could edit out every character short of the villain and have a game that tells it’s plot just as efficiently, with only a fraction of the time.
The game has been billed as a Metroidvania-style platformer, which feels partially true. There is an overworld that you can skedaddle around in. But the worlds are not-so-seamlessly divided into stages, and the player will almost always be pointed in the right direction via dialogue puke. So it’s less Metroidvania than it is Metroid Fusion…but with even more damned talking. The gameplay comprises of entering an area, running through a path and jumping and gunning down the wildlife. Destroying the local ecosystem…maybe it has more in common with Metroid than I once thought.
Learning from Ratchet and Clank (or maybe it was Insomniac that stole Cave Story’s idea), the gunplay is combination of skill, reflexes and lots of shiny things flying around. With the right firearms, a lot of bullets will be flying around the screen, destroying the many enemies you encounter into pieces of glowing triumph forks. Said triangles can be used to upgrade the various weapons you collect…and then weep because taking damage will also drain said experience. The combination of bullets, triangles and other pizzazz makes gunning down adversaries more entertaining than perhaps it ought to be.
The bosses are also fairly entertaining. They’re primarily pattern-driven (and half of them involve the toaster guy) but can be very challenging. And you’ll indeed pat yourself on the back for your efforts in unplugging Balrog. But they do bring up my biggest complaint about Cave Story; save points can be in very inconvenient places. The wake of a boss fight can leave you with more obstacles to kill your low-health-barred ass before you find a save point. The final sequence (that I know of) consists of four consecutive boss fights, with no checkpoint in between. The game does have a handful of long stretches between save points that seem to just artificially lengthen the experience more than they ought to. Is this being nostalgic of older platformers? It might be. But nostalgia of older platformers has become so overdone that Cave Story comes across as more of a poser than a homage.
As someone who’s failed out of a Flash class in his life, I can appreciate the sheer amount of effort it takes for one to make a ball bounce across the screen, let alone create a lengthy platform shooting epic. So Cave Story can be commended if just for the blood, sweat and tears the man known as Pixel spent creating his strange rabbit fantasy. But as a priced game, competing on the Wii with some of its inspirations on the Virtual Console, it’s a bit out of its element.
Here’s a test to determine whether or not you should buy Cave Story; if you know the original, Japanese title to Cave Story, you should buy Cave Story. Because odds are, you are already that much of a fan that you’d want to give Mister Pixel a bit of a donation.
3 ½ stars